When 2,000 people took their seats at the half-mile-long table down Victoria Street in St. Paul on September 14, 2014, the occasion was CREATE: The Community Meal, a project initiated by St. Paul artist Seitu Jones.

For two years, Jones knocked on doors in the Frogtown neighborhood around Victoria Street, getting his neighbors’ approval to close the street for the event and distributing tickets for the meal. He organized listening tours that engaged St. Paul residents in conversations about their food traditions, attitudes, rituals, and access. He assembled an army of volunteers, chefs, farmers, artists, and residents to participate. He received a Joyce Award for CREATE and found a producing partner in Public Art Saint Paul. He immersed himself in issues around food production, business, and regulations, as well as small-scale farming.

None of this was new to him. A self-described “real-deal city boy” and fourth-generation Minnesotan (he grew up in South Minneapolis), Jones is best known as an artist who has created more than 30 large-scale public art works. But Jones was “born into a family that treasured being outdoors,” he says. He studied plants—an aunt nicknamed him “Little George Washington Carver.”

“My father, crazy uncles, and grandfather had us out in boats all the time,” he adds. From the University of Minnesota, Jones received a B.S. in landscape design and a graduate degree in environmental history. He’s been a Senior Fellow in Agricultural Systems in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Science Resources. That layering of experiences, he says, informed CREATE.

But his food background was academic. Creating CREATE, Jones says, “was my opportunity to learn firsthand and educate myself about food systems. So while I organized and curated the event, it really was all about me.” Jones laughs at his self-referential insistence. But he’s also quite serious. CREATE, he explains, “was based around this big learning I wanted to do, in my neighborhood, in the region, and in the world as an artist.” While such terms as placemaking, social sculpture, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary have been used to describe what he does, Jones says his work truly is “me. It’s all in the same head, mine. It’s my attempt to blend art and nature. It’s what my passions are at that point in time.”

Go ahead and Google all the reasons for CREATE, Jones says. They included educating neighbors about healthy food choices: the community-based, urban-agricultural organization Jones is part of, Afro-Eco, found Frogtown residents had a high percentage of such food-related illnesses as obesity and Type 2 diabetes due to poor food choices. The study also found that Frogtown residents are intimidated about making healthy food choices. Jones noted, in several interviews, how he’d watch his neighbors walk back and forth from the local convenience store, where fresh food is a rarity. CREATE, in part, was organized to show Frogtown residents how the food system works and dispel myths about food production by putting them in contact with local farmers and chefs.

But for Jones, CREATE was simply “what I wanted to do. It was also the right thing to do. It’s a moral imperative, changing the food system. Racism, class, homophobia—I have tried, personally and collectively with like-minded folks, to change these things in some way. And I’ve come to the realization that you can make, as an individual, incremental change, but not fundamental change. So I’ve been working with systems instead. CREATE revealed how food systems work to other folks.”

An evaluation of the event revealed incremental changes in how people view and purchase food. But the biggest outcome was one nobody expected. “Every now and then,” Jones says, “I run into someone who says, ‘Hey! You’re the guy that closed the street!’ People go on and on! Because the political act of closing the street, for this community, was a powerful symbol to folks. It served as an example of what we can do collectively—in the middle of this neighborhood—and over a celebration, not a crisis.”

Art and Agriculture

While organizing CREATE, Jones was also collaborating with his wife, Soyini Guyton (a poet and master gardener), and their neighbors Anthony Schmitz (a novelist and kayak builder) and Patricia Ohmans (a master gardener and writer) on getting another project up and running: Frogtown Park and Farm. Founded in 2013 in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, the City of St. Paul, and the Wilder Foundation, the 13-acre park encompasses fields, woods, and an oak savanna on the city’s third-highest point—in the middle of its poorest and most ethnically diverse neighborhood. The certified-organic urban demonstration farm (and event-rich destination) inside the park is a place where neighbors can learn farming techniques while celebrating community.

Jones and Guyton moved into their renovated Frogtown storefront, where they live and work, “at the tail end of the crack epidemic in the mid-’90s,” he says, “and when predatory lenders were at work in the neighborhood.” In addition to becoming stalwart residents and instigating CREATE and Frogtown Park and Farm, Jones has made a commitment to the neighborhood in other ways. A study done by the St. Paul Forestry Department and the University of Minnesota found that Frogtown had a deficit of more than 10,000 trees, which, if they existed, could provide shade that lowers utility bills and a green canopy that beautifies while cleaning the air of pollutants.

Inspired by those findings, by artist Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks urban forestry project, and by Nobel Peace Prize winner and Green Belt Movement founder Wangari Maathai’s initiative to plant more than 51 million trees in Kenya, Jones helped create a nursery in Frogtown that hands out fruit trees to residents every year. “The nursery was a way I could do an artistic intervention that accompanies what Beuys and Maathai did in some way,” he explains. “It was a way to ‘greenline’ the neighborhood, which has been redlined in so many ways.”

Along with being a real-deal city boy, Jones says, “I’m a child of the ’60s, and was really influenced by the Black Arts Movement, where I learned the philosophical tenets of different ideas. One that stayed with me is leaving your community more beautiful than when you found it.” He also cites Beuys and his concept of social sculpture as an influence, as well as musicians Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, writer Amiri Baraka, and artist Rick Lowe, who took over two dozen derelict shotgun houses in Houston’s Third Ward and transformed them into Project Row Houses, a cultural center that’s become an important symbol of urban transformation without obliterating a community’s roots.

Today, Jones finds himself chatting with longtime neighborhood organizer Johnny Howard “about boulevard plants instead of shootings, foreclosures, and crack houses,” Jones says with a laugh. But once again, he’s serious about the changes Frogtown has experienced—for the better. “To be as passionate about trees, plants, and healthy food as we were about really immediate life-and-death matters, and to have done CREATE together, which was so amazing for longtime Frogtown residents, shows us both just how far the neighborhood has come.”

Artistic Gestures, Large and Small

Throughout his decades of art-making, Jones has also collaborated with another St. Paul artist, Ta-coumba Aiken. The two men have been re-embedding their seven bronze pieces, Shadows of Spirit, into the sidewalks of the new Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. They’re collaborating on another set of shadows for the sidewalks in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which will be installed in 2018. “And I still do work that’s very literal, that’s political,” Jones says, including a series of “self-portraits of myself in threatening positions for African-American men.” Among them are Jones in a hoodie. Another is of Jones lying in the street, surrounded by the feet of people looking down on him.

“Every piece of work you see is an expression of the artist’s worldview,” he says. “Everything I’ve chosen to do is an attempt to expose systems, to work on system and policy change, framed through an artist’s eye.” In particular, such “large gesture” pieces as CREATE, he says. Or the endeavor he’s currently launching: the ArtArk, a floating laboratory and art project on the Mississippi River.

For nine years, Jones has been on the Board of Managers for the Capitol Region Watershed District, helping to oversee the process of managing storm water in St. Paul. An avid boat builder, he was a founding board member of Urban Boatbuilders in St. Paul. Recently, he retired from his position as a faculty adviser in Goddard College’s Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts program in Port Townsend, Washington, where he and his students built a rowboat from which he did much of his advising. Connect the dots, or all his experiences, right back to hanging out with his crazy uncles in boats, and, Jones says with exuberance, “I’ve turned into a water geek.”

In 2015, Jones received a McKnight Project Grant for Mid-Career Artists from Forecast Public Art for ArtArk. Students from Urban Boatbuilders and the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center helped Jones design and construct the vessel. Working with the Capitol Region Watershed District, students on ArtArk will interpret and present, through writing, visual art, and performance, scientific data collected along the 13-mile-long Mississippi River watershed segment in St. Paul.

“My neighbors in Frogtown, as well as people throughout the Twin Cities, travel across the river multiple times a day,” Jones says, “and most of us only see it from the bridges above. ArtArk is about introducing more folks to the river and creating engagement with it.” Once again, Jones says, “When I say a project is about me, this is what it’s about. Every one of these art projects requires layers of logistics, regulations, education, experience, and other stuff to get it accomplished…. Learning all that and orchestrating it all is part of how my projects are created and curated. It’s all part of making my art.”

For navigating the worlds of environment, art, agriculture, and water, Jones recently received the 2017 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, which recognizes a Minnesota artist’s lifelong commitment to creating incisive art that is locally, regionally, and/or nationally significant, while encapsulating their distinctive and extraordinary perspectives. Jones’s art is indeed wide-ranging, but with a focus nearly always trained on his Frogtown neighborhood.

Recently, he received a Pastry and Baking Certificate from St. Paul College. Say what? Frogtown Park and Farm, he explains, was awarded a grant from the NFL, which is bringing the Super Bowl to Minneapolis next year, to build an outdoor kitchen that includes a small bakehouse. The project will carry on where CREATE left off, Jones says, by providing a community location for cooking and baking demonstrations.

“I spent the last year learning the science of baking, and the fundamentals of pastry and artisan baking,” he says, “and we just had the first meeting for the new baking group, whose members will be baking for people in the neighborhood. We baked bread in the small portable pizza oven the farm has now. It was fantastic!” Next summer, Jones will sculpt a new, larger baking oven for the farm. “It’s my new passion,” he says, “and I’ve been so blessed to be able to follow my passions.”

Camille LeFevre is a St. Paul–based arts journalist.

Featured in Public Art Review #57